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At home with ... Wendy Whiteley

A roomful of treasures offers plenty of surprises, writes Andrew Taylor.

Given the premature deaths of her former husband, the artist Brett Whiteley, and their daughter, Arkie, it's a surprise to find Wendy Whiteley's home decorated with what appear to be miniature tombstones.

There are stone ledgers in Whiteley's sitting room and on the balcony, while another stands sentinel in the magnificent garden she created on disused land between her home and the railway line in Lavender Bay.

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Wendy Whiteley

Wendy remembers coming to Lavender Bay for the first time and the times spent there with Brett and Arki.

But closer inspection reveals the carved stones are not memorials to loved ones. One is etched with a line from Bob Dylan's song It Ain't Me Babe, while another is inscribed with the message: ''Keep taking the pills.''

Whiteley says the stone etching by Ian Marr made her laugh ''especially as I'm a recovering addict, etc, and I don't take pills any more except [for] a bit of Panadol for a headache''.

Birdsong and the sound of trains edging towards North Sydney station waft through an open window as Whiteley, aged 71, sits in the lotus position on a plush white sofa.

Above her is a large nude painted by Brett in 1964. Whiteley was the model for the entire Bathroom series including Bather and mirror (second version). It is one of many treasures in the stark white, light-filled sitting room, although Whiteley says it has been under-appreciated.


''Australians are a bit like that about Brett's early work,'' Whiteley says, tilting her hands back and forth.

They will be afforded the chance to become better acquainted with the painting when it crosses the harbour to hang in the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills.

The London Years, which opens on July 14, will feature works from the Abstractions and Bathroom, Christie and London Zoo series that Brett created during the 1960s.

Interest in Brett's art and his tumultuous life with Wendy, who divorced him in 1989, remains strong 20 years after his death. Two of his paintings are among the top five highest-selling Australian works at auction. Last week the veteran art dealer Denis Savill announced he was selling the 1988 painting Seagull (Japanese: The Screaming Voice) for $1.6 million.

A major rehang of Australian art at the Art Gallery of NSW, to open on May 12, will also feature several of Brett's works from the 1970s including Self portrait in the studio.

Whiteley will discuss the famous artwork and share her recollections of Brett's life and works in conversation with the gallery's head of Australian art, Wayne Tunnicliffe, on May 13.

We had a lot of parties, a lot of bohemian drunken behaviour.

Meanwhile, a Sydney banker, Andrew Pridham, has taken the Melbourne art adviser Anita Archer to court over a $2.5 million sale of an allegedly fake Whiteley referred to as Lavender Bay, 1988.

The contents of Whiteley's sitting room would certainly be the envy of most galleries, with its eclectic collection of artworks that she regularly moves around. ''It doesn't matter how good it is, it can end up becoming part of the decoration and I never want that,'' she says.

Whiteley says the sitting room has a new floor, its recycled timber boards all running in the same direction and painted white.

Despite extensive renovations, Whiteley says her reasons for loving the room have not changed: ''It's open and white, and I can put good things in it.''

Curved mirrors are mounted either side of the large window overlooking Whiteley's garden and Lavender Bay. In front of one mirror a large bust of Buddha gazes at a wall lined with shelves of sculpted heads, tribal masks from Africa and Papua New Guinea plus a gas mask.

But it is the panoramic view of Lavender Bay, stretching from Luna Park to the Harbour Bridge and the city skyline, that remains as attractive to Whiteley as it did when she and Brett discovered the house in 1969.

''If this room had been in the suburbs somewhere, we wouldn't have even thought about it,'' she says.

The Whiteleys moved into the brick-and-timber waterfront house after spending most of the previous decade in London, New York and Fiji.

The house was then divided into flats and they had come to visit their architect friend Rollin Schlicht, who had been in London at the same time.

Schlicht lived on the ground floor in ''a rather dark and gloomy flat'' with his wife and two daughters.

What is now Whiteley's sitting room was then a flat that had just been vacated by an elderly couple.

The Federation house had been ''pulled around'' with staircases removed and the balcony enclosed.

''They had wallpaper and they had lino on the floor,'' she says. ''It was very gloomy and dark and very rundown, and very sad and in need of repair.''

Another consideration for the nomadic Whiteleys was their young daughter Arkie.

''We kind of fell in love with the bay and Arkie was sick of being shunted around,'' she says.

''She was just about to be five and she wanted to go to a school where she wouldn't be dragged out of six months later. It became the central focus, which we'd never really had before. We were gypsies.''

Even as tenants, the Whiteleys had painted the house's floor black and the walls white but it was not until they bought the house in 1974 that its extraordinary transformation began. ''As soon as we owned it, the tower started happening, which we had to get a DA for,'' she says. ''The walls started to come down. The balcony got turned into a balcony rather than a room for the birds to fly around in because it was unusable.''

The space downstairs became Brett's first studio in Sydney. Before that, he had painted in what is now the sitting room because ''it was the only space we had,'' Whiteley says.

Their bedroom was next to the balcony that had been colonised by birds, while Arkie was ''tucked into a corner'' that is now the kitchen.

Whiteley lives cheek-by-jowl with neighbours, who include the artist Peter Kingston, at the end of a row of houses built below Lavender Bay Road, separated from the harbour only by the railway tracks and the garden that Whiteley cultivated on land left weed- and rubbish-strewn by Rail Corp.

Amid imposing Moreton Bay figs and jacarandas populated by a raucous crowd of kookaburras, magpies and currawongs, Whiteley's garden of ferns, flowers and trees is her living canvas and arguably as important a contribution to the life of the city as Brett's art.

The garden is open to the public, though Whiteley is occasionally annoyed by the teenage dope smokers who cut up her garden hose and leave used condoms and bottles.

She started cleaning up the area between her house and the railway line not long after Brett died of a heroin overdose in 1992. That sorrow was compounded nine years later by the death of their only child, Arkie, in 2001 from cancer.

Reflecting on the more than four decades she has lived in Lavender Bay, Whiteley says: ''We had some terrific times here, you know, early on.''

''We had some pretty extreme times in here in the early days. We had a lot of parties, a lot of Bohemian drunken behaviour,'' she says, laughing.

''I don't drink any more so those [times] aren't going to happen and Brett, well both of us, converted to different drugs at one stage.''